By Ruben Medina, NIHL Statistician
Every year in October, the leaves change color, the thermometer starts to drop, and the NIHL Executive Board meets to re-tier the 300+ teams that play Seeding Rounds in our league. It is a ritual of Fall. It is a procedure that makes the NIHL Regular Season more competitive, more entertaining and more meaningful for players, coaches and parents. Do the math and you’ll see we are talking about making November thru February more exciting for approximately 4,500 hockey playing kids from all over Chicagoland.
By reassigning teams based on their Seeding Round performance, NIHL raises the likelihood that they will play closer games, against more similar-strength opponents during the Regular Season. This is the critical part of the league’s season that will eventually determine which teams do and do not qualify for the season-ending NIHL Wolves Cup Tournament.
How Does Re-tiering Work?
First Let’s Cover Some “Givens”…
Tier II Youth teams can’t be picked until tryouts can begin, which is September 1st in our district. So, clubs don’t know exactly how many teams they have and at what level (Gold, Silver, Bronze) they should play until a few days later.
NIHL and the club presidents meet very early in September to capture the information on what teams they want to place where for the Seeding Round. This decision on Seeding Round placement (Gold A, Gold B, Silver A, Silver B, Bronze) is made by the clubs – their coaches, hockey directors and their boards. They understand that teams will be moved up, down or maintained at their level based on how they play in the Seeding Round. They also understand that even when teams are moved, those moves are typically single steps up, or down; and that only very unique performances could cause more dramatic changes in placement for the Regular Season.
The Seeding Round can’t last forever. In fact, it only lasts long enough to allow teams to play 8 games over 6 weeks. In divisions of 20+ teams, there is no possible way to play all the opponents during Seeding. That’s why the teams at any Level are randomly divided into Red, White, Blue, etc. groups for Seeding. In these smaller groups there can be cases where some teams in a group do not meet each other, and cases where some teams play each other twice; because not every Level has exactly 9, 18 or 27 teams in it (…think about it).
Seeding is Over. Now Roll Up Your Sleeves!
Scores are supposed to be posted by midnight on the Saturday that the Seeding Round ends. Why? Because early on Sunday morning the NIHL board members, and an impartial observer representing the clubs, meet to start the task of wading through the results of 328 teams, 6 divisions, 19 levels and 38 tiers. If a score is missing it has a cascading effect that throws off that team’s result, its opponent’s result, their Tier’s result, the Level’s result…. you get the idea.
In groups where there was an unbalanced schedule, how did that help or hurt teams that are on the borderline for promotion or relegation? We look at those details.
By the time we meet we have also received phone calls and emails from clubs who are anticipating that their teams are candidates for movement, and they lobby for a particular placement for one of their teams. We refer to those petitions as we consider those divisions, but they are considered after we look at what the data tells us.
The Re-Tiering Meeting typically lasts for 5-7 hours after which there is a consensus as to which teams go where, and how many games each group will play in its Regular Season.
Monday, the re-tiered team placements are shared with the NIHL club presidents who have 24 hours to offer comment if they believe there is a mistake or a difference of opinion. There are not too many, but inevitably there is another round of emails from clubs who want to advocate for a different decision. In very few cases does the NIHL board conclude that a change is merited, but it can happen.
On Wednesday preparations start for Saturday’s Regular Season Scheduling Meeting where every team manager receives a unique Scheduling Form telling their team which opponents they will host at their rink, and a Scheduling Matrix that tells them who they play Away.
Questions that arise each year once the new Regular Season groupings are announced include:
Why are there 12 Elite teams in one age division but only 9 or 10 at another?
Ideally Elite and Gold A Levels have 9 or 10 teams in them, but sometimes there’s nothing the Seeding Round data shows that helps the committee separate teams No. 10, 11 or 12.
How come teams in the top tier have to play a balanced schedule?
Because that is the only fair way to decide a Presidents Cup champion in those tiers.
Why is our Tier 2 playing so many/so few games?
If your team is playing an unusual number of games; you can thank the top tier in your division. In a situation where there are 10 teams playing an 18 game, balanced schedule (same number of games with each team) in Tier 1 of your Level, then Tier 2 is playing the same number of games whether that causes a balanced schedule or not. Why? Because it’s in the Rules.
Does Re-tiering Create Better Competition?
The best way to look at whether Re-tiering improves competitive balance is by analyzing whether the teams in a tier can play competitively against their opponents. That does not mean that every team should have a .500 record. It means that the No. 1 and 2 teams should be playing close games against the No. 9 or 10 teams.
When we look back at previous season results and make a comparison of Seeding Round v. Regular Season performance; that is exactly what we see. Across the season, Average Goal Differentials for nearly all teams in each tier is smaller during the Regular Season. This is a signal that it became harder for top teams to win games, and bottom teams are staying in games longer, making themselves more of a challenge to beat.
Can there still be a blowout sometimes? Sure there can. Can a key player get injured or sick and change how a team performs? Of course. However, when you look across all the divisions and across all the teams the concept does prove itself to be true:
“Seeding Round Performance + Re-Tiering = More Competitive Regular Season”.
We hope you enjoyed a little peek into the “black box” of re-tiering, and we wish your teams good luck during their Regular Season!